The Sebastopol Center for the Arts and the Poet Laureate Selection Committee hosted a virtual reception on July 12 to honor Sonoma County's newest poet laureates. The event honored the outgoing county poet laureate, Maya Khosla, and celebrate the incoming laureate Phyllis Meshulam and youth poet laureate Zoya Ahmed.
The Sebastopol Center for the Arts is home to the Poet Laureate Selection Committee and is composed of representatives from each of the five county supervisorial districts. The Sonoma County Poet Laureate title is awarded to a resident of Sonoma County who has exhibited a commitment to social and literary work within the community. This is the first year the county has selected a Youth Poet Laureate.
The announcement comes at a time of widespread need for resiliency and hope. This year’s Poet Laureate recipient, Phyllis Meshulam, demonstrates clear dedication to the arts in Sonoma County and a sensitivity well suited for the times. Meshulam is a long time resident of Sonoma County and has published four collections of poetry. She received the Artist’s Embassy International Award for her most recent collection, “Land of My Father’s War.” Her work within the community highlights her passion for justice and inclusivity in the arts, reaching diverse communities through her teaching and writing. Meshulam has a vast array of experience working with students in the CalPoets Program and the Poetry Out Loud Program and plans to share this knowledge with a greater number of students.
Meshulam explains her approach: “The purpose of the first project is to expose more students to the power of poetry. It seems the most efficient way to do this is to offer training to Sonoma County school teachers in some timely and/or sure-fire lessons, something that would never replace a trained poet-teacher in the classroom doing a residency, but it would offer poetry to greater numbers of kids. One way to do this would be on the teacher development days that most districts provide, in online format now, of course. A couple of the lessons I have in mind have to do with race and are tailored, one for older, one for younger kids.”
Meshulam’s community outreach has led her to residents at Napa State Hospital, veterans, preschoolers, and English language learners. She hopes to shed light on the wide range of experiences within the community by making room for contemplation and reflection.
“In my second project I propose to create an anthology of poems from members of the community. The book would probe obstacles we face in aligning our society with the needs of the planet as a whole and all its inhabitants. Three sections will be based on Joanna Macy’s ‘the work that reconnects.’ Macy, an environmental activist and translator of Rilke, starts with the concept of ‘gratitude,’ then moves to ‘honoring our pain for the world,’ then ‘seeing with new eyes.’ The ‘honoring our pain for the world’ section may have a lot to do with the racial issues we are currently finally confronting. With these projects I hope to raise the profile of poetry and take advantage of its ability to reveal and heal.”
Zoya Ahmed is a 17-year-old, incoming senior at Mario Carillo High School and the county’s first youth poet laureate. Ahmed won the 2019 Sonoma County’s Poetry Out Loud recitation contest and later became a finalist in the California State Poetry Out Loud contest.
Ahmed is a first-generation American, deeply influenced by her families roots in Pakistan and India. Ahmed said she discovered her love for poetry when she was introduced to poems written by South Asian artists. Ahmed’s passion for social justice has been further charged by the current protests and inequalities made clear in the country. She said this will greatly shape how she will approach her position as youth laureate.
“I want the youth to be interested in participating with something new and modern, a poetry forum that tackles the disparities and problems of our society, but then also teaches and expands on the poets that built modern Poetry,” she said.
Ahmed hopes to share her love for poetry and the arts with her peers and amplify the diverse voices of the local demographic.
“I want to create events that really appreciate the landscape of our own Sonoma County and its vibrancy and demographic ... a program that breathes life into poetry, perhaps weaving it into various other art forms, so the community can appreciate all that the arts have to offer, as a collective masterpiece," she said. "Having a cultural vibrancy of all the different groups that make up our community, and combining those cultures.”